Untrue Romances

I am writing this on Valentine’s Day. Call me sappy (or, perhaps, unable to think of a better topic) if you wish; however, we should consider our favorite couples in fiction (as opposed to fictional couples, a plethora of which exist in the real world!) even though we will be a day late and dollars short of V-Day by the time you read this.

Please permit me to take the plunge first. No one comes close to Spenser, the world’s most self-satisfied detective, and Susan Silverman. Each installment of Robert B. Parker’s iconic series (which lives on through the immense talent of Ace Atkins) is propelled by dialogue, and Dr. Silverman’s ability to match her tough-guy boyfriend line-for-line makes for great reading indeed. I will confess that in my own day-to-day conversations (though never in my stories) I have with abandon misappropriated sentences (nay, paragraphs!) which originally sprung from the mouths of both of these characters. Naturally, my favorite book about their relationship is A CATSKILL EAGLE, where Susan and Spenser kind of, sort of break up for a book or so. This gives Spenser an excuse to get truly medieval, and he does.

How many Spenser books are there? Dozens, at least.  Accordingly, my second-favorite romantic pairing is an angst-laden one, played out over the course of but one book. The couple would be Johnny and Sarah; the book would be THE DEAD ZONE by Stephen King. It’s not necessarily one of King’s best books, but it is one of many favorites, and the relationship between these two very nice people is one reason why. Their courtship is cut short when an automobile accident puts Johnny in a seemingly eternal coma. Sarah, sort of understandably, moves on after a decent interval and marries a decent enough guy, though King indicates here and there that the gentleman’s ancestry just might include a sphincter (or two) and maybe even a plastic device for holding a certain vinegar and water concoction.  She is comfortably though not necessarily happily married when Johnny comes out of the coma. The book is not so much about their romance as it is about Johnny’s psychic powers, but the back and forth between Johnny and Sarah throughout the story as they look but can’t touch and then say what-the-heck, let’s touch anyway, is worth the price of admission all by itself. THE DEAD ZONE, by the by, was nominated for, but did not win, the 1980 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
Now: your turn. Any romantically linked couple in fiction, in any media, is acceptable (though if you tell us Batman and Robin…), and please explain why. And Happy Valentine’s Day, wherever you are.

Do We REALLY Need This?

I am not a Luddite.  While slow to buy into new technologies, I selectively embrace them, much like the popular girl in school who will take the arm of the quarterback, but not the tight end. I was not the first on my block to have a Kindle or an iPod, but I was also spared the embarrassment and the expense of Betamax and a Quad system.  There is a new device, however, upon which Sweet Joseph is going to have to take an immediate and irrevocable pass. This would be something called a “wearable book.”
When I first saw the headline for this I thought that perhaps it was a sort of hands-free device that would enable one to read while stirring a casserole or hefting weights from Point A to B without having to turn a page. Yes, I know, those are called “audiobooks,” but I thought that perhaps this was something different, a device that somehow sensed when your eyes had reached the end of a page and turned or scrolled it for you. No; the wearable book, which results in something called “sensory fiction,” is a vest-like contraption coupled with a specially designed reading device which is designed to physically communicate the emotions of the characters in a novel to the reader as the book is read. My understanding of how this works is that if, say, Jack Reacher is trying to defuse a bomb as its digital clock clicks toward zero, the reader will experience a tingling in the appropriate place which will approximate the feeling Reacher gets as eternity nears.

I’m not making this up. It’s been developed at MIT and if you would like to read all about it in the UK Telegraph you can check out the article here. The folks who worked on this seem to be very sincere; the first story treated to this new technology is “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree, Jr., a classic science-fiction short story which even people who think that they hate the genre might well enjoy. If they met their threshold definition of success for this device, well, I’m happy for them. My problem with this device — and correct me if I’m wrong — is that it is our job as authors to make the readers hearts and minds go pitter-patter without the aid of an artificial device. Stephen King needed nothing more than the page and the printed word to make my hairs stand on end, repeatedly, in THE SHINING. More recently — much more recently — I have been reading a book due to be published next week titled THE GIRL WITH A CLOCK FOR A HEART by Peter Swanson that has had my brain engaged since the first paragraph. I have been screaming — inwardly and occasionally out loud — since the first page, and not just because I identify with the poor fool who against all logic becomes involved with his college sweetheart, who is not a good person, no not at all. Swanson did that, not a vest.

Please check out the link above, and tell me: are you intrigued? Or isn’t all fiction sensory already, if it’s done right? Isn’t that why we read?

Is your book a Christmas sweater?

So there I was, standing in the corner at the Christmas party Friday, nursing my apple-tini and watching the crowd, when my friend Trent sidled up.
Trent’s dream job is to be Clinton Kelly on “What Not to Wear” so at the party he was mentally undressing the women and then re-dressing them. He is also a disciple of the Alice Roosevelt Longworth axiom “If you can’t say anything nice about somebody, come sit by me.” (Teddy’s daughter once described Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle.”) And this being a Christmas party, you can imagine that Trent had a lot of material.
He says that there’s something about dressing up that just confounds some women down here in South Florida, particularly during the holidays. I have to agree with him. Women start out okay with maybe a little black dress. But then too many pile on every button and bow, every piece of bling they own. Trent calls it “the Full Boca.”
Okay, I’m picking on the women here, but men have it easy when it comes to formal wear; you have to try really hard to mess up a tux. But women? Some of them just don’t know when to leave well enough alone.
And standing there at the party with Trent, I realized a lot of writers have this same problem. Me, included. So let’s talk about description and how to keep your book from turning into an ugly Christmas sweater. 
Description is maybe the most potent tool in our narrative toolbox. It sets a mood, signposts a sense of place, and renders characters into flesh and blood. Description has the crucial function of letting the reader sense — see, hear, smell, feel and taste — what it going on in your story. If your description is truly compelling, it can make a reader believe in things that are otherwise incredible. Think of what Stephen King does with “Salem’s Lot.” By making his mythical Maine town come alive through description, we are willing to suspend disbelief when the vampires start showing up.

Speaking of King, here’s what he says in his book “On Writing”:

“Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It is far from easy. We’ve all heard someone say, ‘Man, it was so great (or horrible/ strange /funny)…I just can’t describe it!’ If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this well, you will be paid for your labors. If you can’t, you’re going to collect a lot of rejection slips.”

“Prickle with recognition.” Isn’t that a great way to put it?

Why do so many of us struggle with description? I think it’s because many writers don’t know how much description to use. Some don’t use enough. But usually, they have way too much. Description is narrative and narrative disrupts action. So a little goes a long way.
Which brings us back to the little black dress. When description is working well, it is concise and evocative. It also concentrates on a few well-chosen specific details that imply a host of other unspecific details. When Holly Golightly got dressed to go visit Uncle Sally in prison, she didn’t junk up her Givenchy. Just sunglasses and that great hat.
So how do you find your happy medium? How do you know when you’ve gone too far or haven’t gone far enough? How do you resist gilding the lily? There are no easy answers but here are a few things to think about:
Don’t generalize: Try to avoid abstractions. Be concrete in your descriptions. Instead of saying someone played a board game, say it’s Monopoly. Instead of a “bad smell” use the specific “like sour milk.” But again, don’t reach too hard or you look silly.
Don’t forget to compare and contrast. The secret to originality is the ability to see relationships. If you’re describing something green, it’s your job to come up with something fresher than “grass.” Here’s one of my faves from Steinbeck: “The customers were folded over their coffee cups like ferns.” And come to think of it, Alice’s description of Calvin Coolidge as “looking like he was weaned on a pickle” is pretty good. But again, don’t strain for originality or you just sound pretentious.
Don’t lean on adjectives: Just lining up a string of modifiers is lazy writing. (ie tall, dark and handsome). Try to find one vibrant adjective rather than several weak ones. But again, don’t strain or reach for the Thesaurus. Sometimes a lawn is just a lawn…not a “verdant sward.”
Don’t use cliches: It’s easy to slip into tired, flabby words. If you want to say something is white, you can’t use “white as snow.” It’s not yours! Neither is “thin as a rail, sick at heart, hard as a rock” or even “overcome with grief.” Time has eroded all those. It’s your job to find new ways of making your reader experience your fictional world.
Yeah, it’s tough to dress your writing for success. But don’t despair. Description is one of the things that you can get better at. Believe me, I know. I used to lard my paragraphs with lovingly crafted images that dammit, were going to stay in there because I worked so hard on them. But then my sister told me one day that I was — ahem — dressing to impress. I made every writer’s biggest mistake: I fell in love with the sound of my own voice and was trying to be “writerly.” 
Finding your style — be it writing or fashion — is a lifelong process. When I went to my prom, I looked like a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and a Kabuki dancer. Through practice, I look a little better these days. Likewise, in my writing, I have learned what to leave off, what to cut out. In fact, I have gone too far with my WIP so my critique group friends tell me I am now underwriting and they are advising me to add more description.

Here is Stephen King again: 

“Description is a learned skill, one of the reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It is not a question of how-to, you see; it is also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can only learn by doing. “

I’ll leave you with one final fashion icon as metaphor. If you try hard, you can get better at this. If she could go from this:

To this:

So can you.

How to Put The Boys in the Basement to Work


Wow, it’s already time to look back on this year’s NaNoWriMo frenzy. I finished my novel, which of course means it’s due for a heavy edit and re-writes. But the process worked its magic. Even though I had a rough outline, things happened in the story that were a complete surprise to me.  Good surprises. A couple of great ones.
Where did they come from, these wonderful ideas, these twists? From the basement, of course.
I believe in the writer’s subconscious mind. Stephen King calls it “The Boys in the Basement.” There they are, down below, unseen and unheard but hard at work.
You have to treat them with respect, and also find ways to encourage their creativity.
I’ve come up with a system that I tried out during NaNoWriMo. It was inspired by something my agent and teaching colleague, Donald Maass, did at the Story Masters conference this year. Before the students wrote anything, Don had them do some deep breathing and relaxation, wanting them just to be in the moment, feel what they felt, not force anything. Only after several minutes of this did he go into his famous prompts. Cool things started bubbling up.
Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, had a similar notion. For her it happened during sleep, and the first thing she would do upon waking is write, write, write without thinking, letting whatever was beneath the surface come to the top. That would be the material she’d work with.
Ray Bradbury did the same thing. He used to say he’d wake up and step on a land mine, words exploding, then he’d spend the rest of the day picking up the pieces–meaning, finding the story trying to get out.
That’s what NaNoWriMo feels like for most people. And even though I’d done my planning, I still wanted to take full advantage of the boys. So I started doing the following, and it saw me through the completion of my novel in a fresh and pleasing way.
1. Start with that breathing
I get comfortable, close my eyes, and breathe in and out, counting down from 20 to 0. I see the numbers as if on a lighted scoreboard. 20 – 19 – 18 and so on. If my thoughts start to wander to other things, I stop and start over from 20. The key is to get to 0  with a quiet mind
2. Keep your eyes closed and step into your story
Pretend you are magically able to walk into a movie screen and be in the movie of your novel. What do you see? What is your Lead character doing? Watch for awhile. Let the images happen without controlling them.
3. Take notes with pen and paper
For me, there’s something freer about using paper and pen to record what I’ve seen. Don’t write in complete sentences. Make a “mind map” of connections. Below are some notes I made on my WIP after doing this “movie in the mind” exercise. They won’t make any sense to you, and you can’t read my scrawl, but you’ll get the idea.


4. Think about the next scene you’re going to write
Now you can be a little more directed. What scene are you working on? I have a structure for scenes I call the “3 Os”–Objective, Obstacles, Outcome.
What is your POV character’s objective in the scene? If there isn’t one, you’re not ready to write. What obstacles will get in the way (conflict!)? What will be the outcome? (It should usually be a setback of some kind).
Then I like to use SUES: Something Unexpected in Every Scene. Let your boys send up some suggestions, write them down, even the strangest ones (these often turn out to be the best).
Do this until you get so excited about the scene you simply have to start writing.
5. Overtime
I want the boys working at night. So just before I nod off, I think about the story. I see the last scene I wrote. I ask, “What should happen next?”
In the morning, as fast as I can get to it, I jot some notes in my journal (this is an e-document I keep in Scrivener). I just write down what I’m thinking, maybe ask myself a question or two. Then I’m ready to dive in for the day.
And that’s my gamset system. So far not one of the boys has complained. I’m betting they never will.

Does this sound like something you want to try? Drive it around the block a few times. I think you’ll be pleased with the results. Just be sure to send down some donuts from time to time. 

Purging the Editor

I believe it is a given that those of us who aspire to write are also vociferous readers. A reader is a wonderful thing to be; however, I have come to the conclusion that sometimes this state of mind and being can be an impediment to an author aborning.  Reading a novel by James Lee Burke or Karin Slaughter or John Connolly or Chelsea Cain can inspire a reader to think, “I want to do that.”  Yet it can also be discouraging; one reads BLACK CHERRY BLUES by Burke and thinks, “I can never be that good; why bother?”  The fleeting dream is set aside, sometimes permanently. Part of the reason for this state of affairs is that in the case of a book (or a film, or a painting, or a music project) we rarely see what came before, the early stages that led to the final result.

Such does not hold true with respect to a construction project, to name but one example. We recently had the opportunity to watch an all but vacant shopping center in our area be transformed over a period of several months into a wholly done, over, remodeled, commercially successful unit. It was fun to watch. Readers generally do not get to watch the process by which their favorite author transforms a few hundred blank pages into a cohesive, occasionally unforgettable, experience. So it is that the novel, upon publication, seems to have sprung from whole cloth, seemingly effortlessly. We know better, of course. But it is difficult sometimes to fully appreciate it without seeing the ultrasound ourselves.

I hit an emotional low point this past week for a number or reasons that aren’t really important to this discussion; what is important is what brought me out of it, at least so far as creativity is concerned. I happened across an article in Slate entitled “Cormac McCarthy Cuts to the Bone.”  You can find the article here. It is an extremely interesting piece which, among other things, reveals that McCarthy’s classic novel BLOOD MERIDIAN was a far different book at publication than it was at conception. What really attracted me to the article, however, was the reproduction of two pages from McCarthy’s original draft.  They are instructive, even if you have never read a word that Mr. McCarthy has written or alternatively would not reflexively grab your copy of BLOOD MERIDIAN or THE ORCHARD  KEEPER if confronted with a fire and the resultant dilemma of what to save.  BLOOD MERIDIAN did not flow out of McCarthy’s mind without deep and dark consideration. If you’re having trouble getting your words out of you and onto the page, don’t let it be because you in your own mind aren’t “good enough” or “as good” as your favorite author. When your favorite author started writing, they weren’t good enough either. It takes several drafts, several cement pourings, if you will, before things solidify and become right. Don’t put your handprints and your initials into your work and ruin it before it is dry. Purge yourself of what playwright John Guare so brilliantly called “tiny obnoxious editor living in your head,” the one who tells you that you will never be as good as Stephen King or Elmore Leonard or whoever. Then let the construction begin. 

First page critique:The Last Rose of Summer

By P.J. Parrish
Our critique today is titled “The Last Rose of Summer.” My comments, in yellow, follow.

* * *

The naked trees snaked upward, black capillaries against a bleached, predawn sky. The ground beneath his feet was a mire of dead leaves and copper-colored mud. A cold December wind wafted through the trees, loosening raindrops from the needles of the tall pines.

Andrew stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle, the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae. Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees as he scaled the slippery slope. He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Andrew rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.

Despite the freezing temperature, Junior Resnick’s porkish face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His brown jacket, spotted with mud, looked like a sleeping bag tied around his thick belly. “Man,” Junior said, breathless, “I thought he said it was jus’ a ways out here.” He wiped his nose with this forearm. “This is fuckin’ crazy, Andy, plum fuckin’ crazy.”

Andrew allowed himself a small smile. He enjoyed seeing Junior suffer. Wiping the mud from his trousers with a gloved hand, he turned away and started down the hill. “We’ve come this far, we keep going,” he said.

At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the banks of a rippling creek. The sun chose that moment to break through the heavy gray clouds, shooting eerie streaks of light into the morning mist. Andrew heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A mockingbird’s haunting call sent creatures scampering from the brush as the wind whistled softly through the trees. The swirling mist floated over the damp ground, creeping over Louis’s shoes. He felt a stir of excitement. It was a fitting day to find a body.

* * *
This isn’t too bad. There’s some nice atmosphere established and we can figure out what is going on. But I think this is a tad overwrought, what with “naked” trees and “black capillaries” and “bleached skies.” We also get “a mire” of leaves and “copper colored mud.” The wind isn’t merely blowing, it’s “wafting.” Whew…lot of imagery loaded into the crucial opening graph. Here’s some more comments in yellow:

* * *

Andrew stumbled as his boot sank into a puddle,  the suede immediately blanketed by a thin membrane of algae.  The SUEDE was blanketed? Do we care what the boot is made of? While we’re at it, do we care about algae? Get on with it! Cursing softly, he stepped free and trudged on, grabbing the thin arms of the small trees What’s wrong with “branches”? as he scaled the slippery slope. We know its slippery; it has algae on it.  He could no longer see the orange vest of the hunter ahead and he called for him to slow down. Pausing at the crest of the hill, Andrew rested against a fallen tree, pulling up the fleece collar of his cocoa-brown jacket. He waited for the last man of his trio to puff his way up the muddy we KNOW it’s muddy! incline.

Despite the freezing temperature, you already said it was cold Junior Resnick’s porkish  this is a loaded word. Tone it down to chubby?face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His brown jacket, spotted with mud, more mud? looked like a sleeping bag tied around his thick belly. Again, you already told us he’s fat. “Man,” Junior said, breathless, You already told us he’s breathing hard. “I thought he said it was jus’ a ways out here.” I get the feeling we are in the South somewhere. Dropping G’s to convey geographic dialect isn’t a good idea because it is hard to read over the course of  a book and it is staring to establish a stereotype of Southern cops. He wiped his nose with this forearm. “This is fuckin’ crazy, Andy, plum fuckin’ crazy.” I think F word should be used VERY sparingly, as an accent, not as common venacular. It loses its impact when tossed out like this.

Andrew allowed himself a small smile. He enjoyed seeing Junior suffer. If Andrew is our hero, why make him so unlikeable so early?Wiping the mud  argh…more mud from his trousers with a gloved hand, he turned away and started down the hill. “We’ve come this far, need new graph here. we keep going,” he said. New graph here too. At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the banks of a rippling creek. The sun chose that moment The sun is inanimate. It can’t “choose” to do anything. to break through the heavy gray clouds, shooting eerie streaks of light into the morning mist. Louis heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A mockingbird’s haunting call sent creatures scampering from the brush not sure this even makes sense…why would the birdsong make “creatures” start? as the wind whistled softly through the trees. The swirling mist floated over the damp ground, creeping over Andrew’s shoes. Enough with the shoes already. He felt a stir of excitement. You don’t need this…it is telling not showing. It was a fitting day to find a body. Nice little ending but this last graph, coming on top of all the other description, feels self-conscious and “writerly.” “Rippling, haunting, shooting, eerie, creatures whistling, swirling mists…this is all TELLING NOT SHOWING.

* * *

Okay, I know. I am being a little hard on this contributor. But I have a right to be because I wrote this way back in 1998. It got published under a new title — DARK OF THE MOON. The hero’s name changed from Andrew to Louis Kincaid. It was the book that launched the series that we are still writing today.

Sorry for not fessing up from the get-go but I just wanted to make a point. I think the critiques we do here are a damn good deal. We all seem to learn something from the give-and-take of the comments. And although it’s useful to read about the craft of writing, it can be really powerful to get feedback and see “before” and “after” writing samples. I got the idea — and courage — to show you this from Stephen King. I’ve been re-reading “On Writing” this week and in the last chapter he tears apart one of his own stories, showing us his raw first draft and the finished chapter. It’s an eye-opener.

I also wanted to share this because we recently got the rights back to our first book and are self-publishing it as an eBook. But in the process of getting it ready, Kelly and I took a hard look and decided that we could make it better. Don’t get me wrong; we’re proud of the book. But it was a freshman effort and, contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald, there ARE second acts — if not in life than in the life of books. So rather than putting the book out there as it was originally published, we are going through it and changing some things.

Like what? Well, we’re pruning some of the “writer-ly” stuff because in the last twelve years we’ve learned that less is usually more. Here’s a good quote from “On Writing:”  

“If you want to be a successful writer you must be able to describe [it], and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition…Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over description buried him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.”

We’ve also rid our book of bad dialect and gratuitous obscenities. We tweaked the secondary characters so we are not playing directly into the Southern stereotype. Yes, there are truths to be told about race in the South but it is more effective, we think now, to approach it at a thoughtful angle rather than dead-on with a hammer. And because we now know our protagonist better after living with him for twelve books, we are setting up his motivations more thoughtfully. 

This has been extremely humbling, this process. It is also gratifying because we can see our trajectory as authors, see how much we have learned. But what does this have to do with me, you might be asking? Well, here’s some things you might want to take away from my first-page self-critique here: 

1. Trust in the rewriting process. This is where your book is made. Get that first draft written, set it aside for at least a couple weeks then go back and look at it with a cold eye. If it looks, as Stephen King puts it, “like an alien relic bought at a junk shop where you can’t remember shopping,” you’re ready to rewrite. You’ll find glaring plot holes, thin character motivation, and lots of cheese. Embrace this process! “The Last Rose of Summer” was rewritten ten times before it found a publisher and now we’re rewriting it again. Your first draft come from your heart. Your second, third, fourth, tenth…those all come from the head. 

2. Trust yourself to clean up your messes and misses. The original first chapter of “Dark of the Moon” is about five pages. In our latest rewrite we have cut it to three. Nothing important was sacrificed. But we really upped the pacing in the crucial opening chapters. Stephen King offers this formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. 

3. Trust that you will find your “style.” It’s what makes you unique as a writer, your special voice and way of looking at the world through your fiction that no one else has. If you read “Dark of Moon” you will hear P.J. Parrish’s voice but it wasn’t clear and confident. Now, our tone has darkened, our writing style has become leaner, and we’ve found our essential themes. It’s all epitomized in the two titles: Our working title, “The Last Rose of Summer” conveys the end of something but it sounds fuzzy, flowery and better suited to a romance. “Dark of the Moon,” taken from a Langston Hughes poem, hit just the right note. 

4. Trust in your ability to learn. Yes, talent is important but so is craft. And craft can be learned. If you are a serious writer, you must be willing to constantly challenge yourself and never be content with what is easy and quick. You can hone your craft and you can get better. And yes, it might take a long time.

I am an old dog. I am still learning new tricks. 

Postscript: I decided to include the “new” WIP opening so you can see our “before” and “after.” We used our first two chapters in a recent SleuthFest rewriting workshop we taught and if anyone would like to have a copy of the handout, I’d be glad to mail it to you. Email me at killzoneblog@gmail.com. Please put Parrish Handout in the subject line.

* * *

December in Mississippi.

No sun, no warmth. 

Just a cold wet breeze, a bleached gray sky and muddy ground.

Louis Kincaid pushed through a thicket of brush and started up a slope. The fog that hovered near the ground blurred the orange vest of the hunter ahead and Louis had to quicken his pace to keep up. At the top of a hill, he looked back, waiting for the last man of the trio to puff his way up the muddy incline.

Despite the freezing temperature, Junior Resnick’s chubby face was beaded with sweat. His brown deputy sheriff’s jacket looked like a sleeping bag wrapped around his belly.

“Man,” Junior said, “I thought he said it was just a ways out here.” He wiped his nose with this forearm. “I’m sore as hell already.”

Louis turned away and started down the hill.  At the bottom of the ravine, he stopped on the bank of a rippling brown creek. The sun broke through the clouds, shooting streaks of pale light into the morning mist. Louis heard Junior’s footsteps coming up behind him and motioned for him to stop. A trill of a mockingbird drifted on the fog.

Louis felt a stir of excitement and he knew it was a macabre thought —  maybe even twisted — but he couldn’t help think that it was a fitting morning to find a body.

The Enduring Legend

I could be wrong but I somehow doubt that when Washington Irving took quill to parchment in 1820 he ever contemplated that his story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” would, almost two hundred years later, find life on the stages of high schools across the United States, particularly in late October. I thought about this last night as I watched Annalisa, my younger daughter, take the stage just these past Thursday and Friday nights at Westerville North High School in the female lead role of Katrina. The faculty director, an extremely talented woman named Kimberly Mollohan who has in her time graced several stages on Broadway (yes, the one in New York), wisely did not attempt to modernize the story in any way. As a result the primary characters, which have become archetypes in American literature and drama, shine through.

Ichabod Crane is the odd schoolteacher come to town, he of the strict discipline and the voracious appetite which belies his slender build. Crane, however, is outclassed by The Headless Horseman. Though he does not enter the proceedings until almost the very end,  The Horseman is owed a debt by every boogieman that you can think of, from Stephen King’s clown under the bridge in IT to the walkers on Walking Dead  to every villain Batman ever faced. Even last night, among the crowd of high school students and the parents of the actors, an involuntary scream (or two) was elicited from among those assembled.
How is it that “The Headless Horseman” has come to endure, after lo these many years?  I would say that it is because its themes are simple and universal. There is a love triangle involving Katrina (and even though it’s just a play, gentlemen, let’s not get too close to the lady, y’hear?); “Brom Bones” Van Brunt, the affable but underachieving town layabout; and Crane, whose feelings toward Katrina are influenced more by his desire to get his hands on her considerable inheritance than by her beauty.  Thus love, lust, and greed create a conflict; throw in a hint of the supernatural and you’ve got a story that survives the centuries.

As I fell asleep last night, the play still fresh in my mind, I wondered: have the great stories all been told? Can you think of a story, a novel, a play published in the last, say, fifty years that has a chance of still being read (or whatever passes for reading) and well known in 2153? What say you? And Happy Halloween!

Dazzle and dead bodies:What goes into a great opening?

I am about to give you the single best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard:
Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end, then stop.
It comes from the King of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland.” But it is one of my favorite writing mantras. And I really believe that within the quote’s Zen simplicity are three huge lessons about how to write a good book:
  1. Pick the exact right moment in time to start telling your story. Too soon and you end up with pages of throat-clearing. Too late and you might miss the story’s moment of catalytic power. You have to time your entry into your story just right or, like those astronauts in Apollo 13, you’ll skip off the atmosphere and bounce into nothingness.
  2.  Persevere through the second act. Making it through what I call “the muddy middle” is the hardest part of writing a solid book. You have to use all the tricks of the trade to keep the story moving forward and maintain suspense. 
  3. Earn your climax (ahem) and know when it’s time to leave. Deliver a resolution that is logical, fair and emotionally satisfying. But resist the temptation to tie everything up too neatly.  

But let’s go back to beginnings. What makes a great opening for a book?
It’s pretty subjective, and there’s lots of good advice out there. Click here to go to our archives and read Elaine Viet’s take on it. We writers all have our favorite opening lines, which all seem to circle back to “Call me Ishmael.” (Click here to read famous authors talking about their favorite opening lines.)
I especially like Stephen King’s favorite: 
“This is what happened.”
It is from Douglas Fairbairn’s out of print novel, Shoot. King likes it because, “It is as flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.”
King says he struggles with all his opening lines, sometimes for years. I guess that should make us mere mortals feel better as we stare at that blank screen and sweat blood trying to get the right mix of words to snag the reader’s attention. Back to Stephen King:

“[A good opening] is not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.”

King is talking about opening lines in context of his new book, Doctor Sleep. (Click here for the whole article). Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining, picking up with now adult Danny. Here is the opening King came up with:

“On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground.”

As King himself says, it’s pretty workmanlike, neither grand nor elegant. But look what it does: It immediately sets the reader in time and place and creates a bridge between the past book and the new one. I think this is a great lesson for all us writers — you don’t always need dazzling wordplay or a dead body in your opening. Sometimes you just need a solidly build doorway the reader can step through.
I mean, don’t you get a little tired sometimes reading the tortured openings some writers give us? Crime novelists might be the worst offenders because we are led to believe that we have to shock and awe in the opening graph or the story is DOA. As a reader, I hunger for books lately that open in a lower gear. As a writer, I am trying hard to follow the lead of King (and the King of Hearts) and just begin at the beginning.
I am not happy with the opening chapter of my WIP. I think I am trying too hard. So recently, I went to my bookshelf and pulled out few of my favorite books to see how others handled things. Here are four opening lines that I found:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

“Who’s there?” 
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” 

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
The four books? Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White; Hamlet by Shakespeare; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.  
Great openings, all for different reasons. White gives us suspense worthy of Dean Kootz in a children’s book! Shakespeare gives us foreboding and the existential call to self identify. Eugenides sums up his gender theme but makes us wonder: Haven’t we all been born twice? And Plath leads us right to her heroine’s “electric nerves” and lost soul.
Can I offer one last favorite of mine? It’s on almost everyone’s list of great openings but so what?
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
But I love the next few lines even more:
“My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Yes, it is about Humbert’s obsession with his nymphet . But it is also about Nabokov’s obsession with words. Lo. Lee. Ta…a narcotic chant and a prose poem. I’ll never forget the first moment I read that paragraph. I was sixteen, standing in the public library during a sweltering Detroit summer. I’m sure I didn’t really understand the story. What I understood was the magic of those words. True confessions: A couple years ago, I actually tried to riff on Nabokov’s Lo-Lee-Ta in a mystery I was writing. The character was describing Florida (Flor-ee-dah!) and well…you can imagine how bad it was. Thank God my editor told me to rewrite it.
Okay, one last Nabokov sample and then I’ll shut up. It is the SECOND paragraph in Lolita:

“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” 

The first paragraph of Lolita made me want to be a writer. That second paragraph, when I read it today, makes me want to be a better writer. 
We’re back. I can’t resist this coda. Because as I was getting ready to hit the button to post this, I found out that the 2013 winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced. This contest, begun in 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University, honors opening sentences in novels. It is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1830, wrote these now famous lines:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” 

Yes, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest recognizes the worst possible opening lines for novels in all genres. (Here’s the link if you want to read them all, God help you.). For all us crime dogs out there, I’ll give you the winner in crime fiction:

“It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.”

Here’s the winner in my favorite category, Vile Puns:

“What the Highway Department’s chief IT guy for the new computerized roadway hated most was listening to the ‘smart’ components complain about being mixed with asphalt instead of silicon and made into speed bumps instead of graceful vases, like the one today from chip J176: “I coulda had glass; I coulda been a container; I coulda been some bottle, instead of a bump, which is what I am.” 

And here is this year’s grand prize winner:

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.

I think I actually saw that last one on Amazon the other day. If you hurry, you can get it for 99 cents.